Speaking in public ranks right up there in the popular imagination with getting a root canal or doing one's taxes—that is, something to dread. The truth, however, is far rosier. Public speaking can give you and your business a distinct edge over the competition, position you as an expert, and sometimes turn into an unexpected income stream. Recently, business writer Robert Lerose spoke with Joan Detz, author of the acclaimed book It's Not What You Say, It's How You Say It. Since becoming an independent consultant in 1985, the Philadelphia area-based speechwriter, seminar leader, and coach has sharpened the communication skills of leaders in organizations such as Abbott Laboratories, Best Western, Miller Brewing, and Dow Chemical.
RL: Why should a small business owner care about public speaking? How can it benefit either their business or reputation?
JD: Giving a good speech—improving your own communication—is the single most cost-effective way to let people know about your business. If you buy an advertisement or if you hire a public relations firm, that costs money. But if you speak to local business organizations or trade associations, you are able to reach a lot of people and it doesn't cost you any money. You're getting fifteen minutes of an audience's undivided attention, and the credibility factor is very high because people see you and form that respect for you right there on the spot.
RL: What's a big mistake that many speakers make?
JD: You can't just be giving speeches to fill slots at a meeting. Every time you give a speech, you should have a goal. What is that goal? To get people to know how you work? To get people to know what makes your products different? To get them to come into your offices? To get them to use your services? Once you have that goal, it makes writing the speech a whole lot easier.
RL: Okay, I've decided that public speaking is good for my business. What's the first step to take?
JD: Start soon. Don't wait until you're perfect. No one is ever perfect. The sooner you get your first speaking engagement, the better. It can be a very small venue, but get out there. It gets you on your feet. You get to hear how you sound and you get to realize what parts the audience seemed to like and what parts they didn't.
RL: What about training? How should I prepare, especially if I haven't had much experience?
JD: Try and get feedback from a relative, from a co-worker, from someone at a related business—someone who’d be willing to watch your presentation for fifteen minutes and give you feedback. Consider going to Toastmasters. It's all over the world. It's a very inexpensive way to improve your public speaking skills. Flip on C-SPAN when you have fifteen minutes and see what's interesting in [a particular] speech or what's boring. Then think about how you would do the best job.
RL: How do I decide what topics to speak on?
JD: Speak on something that you know inside and out so you don't have to spend a lot of time doing the research. Speak on something that you know that other people might not know. For example: I went into a printing company just a couple of weeks ago and they had a sales piece on the front counter called "10 Ways You Can Cut Your Printing Costs." I thought that's very clever because they know what they can do and they found something that would interest customers. That's an example of [how to come up with] the kind of topic that you could talk about.
RL: Some speakers write out their entire text, while others use a card with keywords that remind them of points they want to make. What's your take on these methods?
JD: Do what works best for you, but again—get someone else's opinion. You might think that a 3x5 card is great. But if the audience thinks that you're wandering or that you took forty minutes when you should have been done in twenty, then a 3x5 card is not a good choice for you. You might do better when you have a full manuscript. It doesn't mean that you read it from the front of the room, but the preparation of writing a full manuscript might help you be more persuasive and more interesting because your material is already there.
RL: What's your secret for handling nerves?
JD: The more comfortable you are with the content of your material, with the audience, and with the venue, the better you will be. Get to the speaking engagement really early so you can walk around, check it out, meet the people when they come in, shake their hands and say, "Hi, I'm your presenter today. What brought you here? What are you interested in?" All of that will help keep the nerves at bay.
RL: How do I get media coverage for my speech?
JD: Give your speech a really terrific title that's appealing to audiences and easy for the media to use. Then put it on your website. If you have a blog or if you're a member of LinkedIn, put it there. Write a letter to the editor of a trade publication [that your audience might read] about your speaking experiences. Go to your college's website and send an update on your activities. It takes very little time and it's a great way to let people know how you're expanding into presentations. One speech will be able to generate recommendations.
RL: How so?
JD: As soon as you do that one speaking engagement, ask for a letter of reference or a recommendation from the person who [hosted it]. Now you have a little blurb that you can attach when you seek other [speaking opportunities]. Get the business cards of [audience members]. That's critical. Then follow up with them afterwards and ask whether they're members of any other organizations that might be interested in a presentation.
RL: Should I charge for giving a speech?
JD: When it's your first couple of speeches and you are asking to go somewhere, you're going to be offering those gratis. However, most organizations would cover your travel expenses. Even though you might not be earning money, you would certainly have your expenses covered.
RL: What if organizations contact me first about speaking?
JD: If they're seeking you out to come and talk, then I recommend that you remember this line: "How wonderful to get that invitation. I'll have to check what my calendar looks like. How do you handle an honorarium?" And they might say, "Well, we can't pay much. We can only pay $200." But you know what? That's $200 you didn't have. But you have to be an expert. You can't just go out and fill time. You have to really know something about your business that customers would benefit from. As you become more accomplished, you will readily find organizations quite willing to pay in the thousands for people who have a message that the audience would like and [who can] present it with a lot of style.
RL: Final advice for small business owners making the leap to public speaking?
JD: I really encourage every small business owner to look at what they can gain from giving a presentation. It was instrumental in me building my business. I would go anywhere when I first started, just so I could tell people what I knew about communication, about public speaking. By giving those presentations, it just built my business. I know how we are all limited by budget, but this is an area where you don't need a budget. This is a way to distinguish your service, your business, or your product from every other one.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.